Eskasoni dispensary owner preparing to go to court to fight for his right to sell cannabis

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Albert Marshall Jr. said he has invested close to $100,000 into his cannabis dispensary, which he said he has shut down after being continuously "harassed" by RCMP.

The owner of a cannabis dispensary in Eskasoni First Nation hopes the charges against him will be dropped before his trial this summer but said he will fight his case “right to the very end.”

Albert J. Marshall, 49, is facing charges under the provincial Cannabis Control Act for selling marijuana without being an authorized seller.

Marshall opened his dispensary, Bear Buds Trading Post, in the fall of 2020, more than six months after Eskasoni chief and council issued a press release stating they would not approve or authorize any privately owned dispensaries to sell cannabis products.

“When we opened up, there was a moratorium on it that nobody was allowed to open up, but we did because, legally, we saw that you can,” Marshall said.

“We talked to many First Nations throughout the country that were operating cannabis businesses and we looked into this very carefully. We saw a need and we wanted to offer the community an affordable, high-quality product right here in our community.” 

Legal grey area

Cannabis was legalized in 2018 in Canada under the Cannabis Act, but the federal government made provinces responsible for regulating its distribution and sale. In Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation (NSLC) is the only authorized retailer of cannabis products.

The Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaw Chiefs, along with many other First Nations organizations and communities, has said the right to self-governance is affirmed in Section 35 of the Constitution Act.

"Each community has the right and the authority to decide what is best for their members, and how their laws are developed and enacted. What happens in the communities is under the leadership of their own chief and council,” the assembly said in a written statement.

Chief Leroy Denny expressed concern over cannabis in Eskasoni after two incidents in which children accidentally ingested cannabis products in 2020. At that time, he said the band would open its own cannabis operation, but it was later confirmed by an NSLC spokesperson that a corporate store is set to open later this year and will include the sale of cannabis.

Marshall, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, is opposed to this approach and said he has an inherent right to sell cannabis in his community.

“Our people don’t see it as a recreational drug – I don’t even want to call it a drug – to us, it is medicine and we are just trading medicine the way we have been for thousands of years and we have never given up our right to do that,” he said.

Business opportunity

Membertou held a community vote in December in which it was decided that independently owned dispensaries regulated by the band would be allowed to operate in the community, which currently has more than 25 small retailers. The regulations are being developed by chief and council and are expected to come into effect later this year.

We’koqma’q First Nation has also held community consultations and is in the process of enacting bylaws overseeing the cannabis market in the community.

Marshall said he “applauds those communities” and would like to see his chief and council reconsider their approach to the regulation of cannabis sales in Eskasoni.

“There’s been no discussions whatsoever – there was not even an attempt to have discussions which isn’t right because as leaders, you don’t represent the inherent rights of the people and you don’t sign them away without the consent of the people,” he said.

Denny did not respond to a request for comment.

Marshall said he employed eight people when his operation was running, and that business was good but the constant presence of RCMP officers and seizure of his inventory caused him to shut down in 2021.

Plans to reopen

He is renovating his small shop situated on the shore just off Crane Cove Road and is planning to reopen soon.

He has already invested almost $100,000 into the business and said he is prepared to lose thousands more to continue his fight.

“I’m not going to lay down for this,” he said.

“If they want to, we’ll go right to the end if we have to because nobody can define our rights or give us an interpretation of them. Only we can do that. We want people to understand their rights because we have limited opportunities on First Nations lands, and this is one thing that is self-funded and an economic opportunity.”

Marshall will be in court in Sydney on April 26 for a pre-trial and is scheduled to return for trial on Aug. 23.

Cpl. Chris Marshall of the RCMP said he could not comment on this case as it is before the courts but said there have been eight cannabis dispensaries charged in First Nations communities in Nova Scotia: three in Eskasoni, all charged under the Cannabis Control Act, and five on reserve land belonging to Millbrook First Nation charged under the federal Cannabis Act. He could not confirm whether any of the charges have resulted in convictions.

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